A Childhood at Katima Mulilo (1972-76)

Melanie spent four years as a child in the garrison town of Katima Mulilo.


We were very excited at the prospect. We knew about the war, but it was a different place - a different country. Nobody knew anything much about it. It was the best couple of years of my childhood really. It was wonderful.



School was great. Some classes only consisted of four or five people. Individual attention was a big thing there. Everybody knew everybody else. It was a very close-knit school. It was a very close-knit community.

The teachers that we had were mostly ladies whose husbands whose husbands worked there. They were in the military so the wives would work there. We had one make teacher who was the principal. We only had about four or five teachers. Not very many.

We used to have class outside under the trees. Many days it was just too hot to sit in a classroom. We were only about 84 children in the school, and we used to have our classes under the trees outside. The school only went up to standard 5. If you went to High School you had to go back to South Africa.

All the camping was great. The school used to fake us camping. Some of the military there used to go with us, and we had these big tents. All the children would be there for the weekend; we would do nice things like having braais and so on.

We used to have a little zoo next to the school and one day one of our little animals, a crocodile of about a metre long got lost. We looked everywhere, but nobody could find it. We found it about two days later in the municipal swimming pool. It was obviously on its way back to the river, swimming with all the old ladies and gentlemen and children and nobody even took notice of having this little thing in there as well. It was noticed as it got out to lie in the sun.


We didn't have things like computers and television. The `outside world' didn't actually exist. We used to play in the trees. It was safe for us. Anybody could go anywhere. It was not like how we lock up our children now. If you were seven years old and you wanted to take your bicycle and go and visit a friend on the other side of the town, there was not a problem. We used a lot of tings together; a lot of swimming obviously because it was very hot, fishing. Everybody could fish. We used to have these little hand lines, and little hooks. I am quite - I don't much like worms, and I used to pay one of these little boys about 5c a week, and he would catch the worms and put them on my hooks so that I could fish.

Also we didn't have shops there. Nothing. We had this one kukka shop which burned down, and then we had nothing for seven months. Every Wednesday another South African would bring fruit and vegetables and things like that and it was like a market. Everybody would go there. Meat was obviously not a problem. I remember there was great excitement when the shop burned down. They suspected that it was sabotage but nobody ever found out.

My dad had a ski-boat. We were on the river every weekend. We used to go to a place called Kalambeza. It was just wonderful. There would be a couple of families who would go camping each weekend. My dad was a keen fisherman. Everyone would be on the boat fishing and just having a great time. I still remember how we used to speed up to the hippos, and us you get closer - and because of the noise of the boat they would dive under the water and so on. That was great fun. We couldn't swim in the river without adult supervision because of the crocodiles. That would not have been a good idea.

We used to come back to South Africa for holidays. All the ladies could came back to South Africa for a shopping trip once every two months, and all the transport on the military vehicles was free, and the aeroplanes. If ever we had to come back to South Africa, you would just get on to a plane. I know that at one stage they made a special day out for the ladies and they flew them to Windhoek, and they were wined and dined and they came back that evening, which I think was great.

Some weekends we used to go to Zimbabwe, to the Victoria waterfalls through the Chobe. That was always very exciting because that was civilisation!

I remember that I would never take my shoes off outside because in the rainy season if you walk in the mud there were those little worms that get into you skin or under your skin. I was very scared of those. That was something I remember very clearly. Sandworms! I fortunately never caught one of those. Snakes were around, but there were part of our environment, so we took it in our stride. We knew we had to be careful.

My father was a state auditor. He was sent up to do everything; the military things, the South African things. He looked very much like the medical doctor who was there, and the two of them because very close friends as well, so they called him `the book doctor'. Also the one gentleman that he had as a - who worked in his office - he was very young- I think he must have been in his early twenties - who was an assistant to him. This person later went on to become a minister in the new cabinet there. A black gentlemen, yes. We saw him a couple of years ago in Windhoek, and he did very very well for himself. To think that he came from such a rural area, and he went on to do that.

We had the freedom of being safe wherever we went. Even though it was war. Nobody thought about it. It was something that was there in the back of your mind, but it was a safe place to be. As children alone we used to stay in the town, but we weren't limited - we could go anywhere we wanted to.

There was so much biltong there. Everyone used to be making it, and we couldn't give it away because everyone else was making their own. Even the dogs got tired of eating it.

As children I remember at nights - because we have no TV or radios or anything we used to sit outside and tell stories and everybody used to visit everybody else so we had lots of playmates. Once, when it was dry, my dad put out water in the garden - buckets of water - and the animals used to come in to the garden to drink water, which was wonderful. We had little buck [antelope] and we once had a little elephant, whose mother was killed. A lady who lived two doors away from us had two cheetahs that she kept in her house. They didn't smell wonderful, but she was very found of these things. I had a little bush baby monkey. There were loads of animals and birds. All kinds of things like that


We knew that the military was the reason that everybody was there. They were everywhere. You would see all the guys. There were about sixty families living there permanently, and besides that it was just a military base. You would see all these military vehicles and things going by. We didn't even take any notice of it. It was what it was supposed to be like.

We saw national servicemen everywhere every day. There were a couple of them that my father dot to know through work, and they used to come to the house. They were really nice boys. We were very young then. We took it in our stride. It was part of the environment. It was the way it was supposed to be.

There were three attacks while we were living there. One was during the day, at about three o'clock in the afternoon. I was alone at home. I didn't even know it was an attack. I thought they were practising. When my parents came home they said; `Oh. Did you hear the shooting?' I said; `No. What shooting? They were just practising.' We were used to that. The other one was during school hours. We had a bomb shelter at school so all of us had to get in there. Big excitement! You know what its like with children! Anything totally away from schoolwork is great. One was at night, at about two thirty that morning. The safest place in the house was in the shower. There were the most walls between us and the outside. The houses were mainly built of glass. My dad had taken a shower that evening and not all the water had run out. My mom sat down with us on her lap - me and my sister - with a red dressing gown on - I still remember that. Everything was wet around us and my dad was in the door with his rifle.


We didn't want to come back. It was sad to leave. It was exciting in a way, going back to the real world. We knew that it was there, but we had our little world, and that was all that we wanted at that stage.

Things went fine when we got back to South Africa. People just didn't believe the stories that we told them. It was like something out of a book. They couldn't believe that read people did these things. It was another kind of excitement coming back again. All of a sudden there were big shopping centres, television and all those things.

Katima Mulilo was wonderful. I wish I could take my children there - the way it used to be there.

Published: 20 June 2003.

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